Issue Holiday Issue 2018,  published December 18, 2018

What I Learned in 2018

Back in January, I started writing my own little newsletter about audio. It was the follow-on from a column I’d had previously on a British magazine’s website, which was discontinued but that I still wanted to write. The mainstream UK media had gotten as far as reviewing podcasts as they would radio shows or rounding up recommendations as lists, but I still struggled to find anyone discussing the deeper aesthetic or commercial aspects of the medium.

In the newsletter’s first installment, I wrote about the trends of the moment were frustrating to me: the denigration of conversational podcasts; the continuing insistence on trying to replicate This American Life; the overuse of schmaltzy music for no apparent reason; a general lack of humour and self-awareness; and the repackaging of broadcast radio shows that were then presented as “podcasts.” (I’m mainly looking at you with this one, BBC.)

Over the next few months, I picked up a few thousand readers, and I wrote regularly about whatever audio matters struck me as the most important at the time: smart speaker consumption, Google’s re-entry into audio, big-name talent acquisitions, and so on. But I also examined niche subjects, which felt relevant in the smaller UK podcasting scene but that I didn’t see a lot of talk about in the US: the rise of the one-person audio operation with an existing media company (I’ve done one of these jobs myself, it’s really hard), the arrival of the BBC Sounds app, and so on. These niche pieces tended to get the bigger response, because other non-Americans were keen to discuss these matters too.

I published the newsletter independently, partly because I was pretty sure no existing publication would pay for that kind of wonky podcast writing, and partly because I didn’t have the time to go to a lot of meetings to pitch it and find out. I felt constantly frustrated because I wanted to be able to research and write deeper dives into these issues, but most of the time, all I could do was spend a couple of hours bashing out some scattered thoughts to send. I had a book to write and podcasts of my own to produce, but I couldn’t bring myself to abandon the newsletter, even though it wasn’t a great financial prospect.

It was also ironic that much of my writing was informed by what felt like the funding gap in independent UK podcasting between those bringing in My Dad Wrote a Porno money (very few people) and those constantly struggling to fill enough inventory to cover production costs (almost everyone else), and here I was caught in the same trap. People were reading, and some were paying, but not enough for me to scale back any of my other work and give more time to writing about podcasting. Yet the newsletter was one of the most visible things I did, and gave me a reputation and position in the audio industry, albeit an unpaid one. It was a hard circle to square.

As I’ve touched on before in previous columns, monetisation options are thin on the ground here, if you’re operating outside of the BBC. You either take your chance with whatever sales Acast or Audioboom can make and accept that those companies will take a big chunk of your revenue, or you devote a huge amount of time and effort to crowdfunding.

There are some brave souls working directly with enlightened companies to make partly or fully branded/sponsored shows, of course, but they’re very much in the minority. For most, the time it would take to put the thing on a solid commercial footing would also mean there was no time to make the thing. It doesn’t help, either, that almost all of those involved in all aspects of podcasting constantly look towards the US and find that their own situation compares unfavourably (unsurprising, since they’re totally different places/ecosystems!).

As the months went by, and as I spoke with more people in the UK podcast scene about it, this catch-22 emerged as the marquee problem of the space. There was a layer of professionalisation missing in the industry, one that would take on some of the burden of monetising smaller enterprises thereby leaving the creator with enough headspace to make good audio — sort of like the role smaller literary agencies play in independent publishing here.

I’ve been pondering this question all year: how do you scale up an independent podcasting endeavour when the amount of effort involved and the financial returns don’t keep pace with each other? I’ve seen some brilliant workarounds found to this, from podcasters successfully winning big government arts grants to transforming an audio experience into a touring live show that sells out theatres, but so far, there’s been no larger structural answer. Maybe there isn’t one, and everyone who survives will have to become a jack of all trades as well as their own business manager. (I hope not, though.)

Part of the frustration around this stems from the fact that in 2018, making independent work in podcasting pay felt possible, if not likely. I got extremely lucky: I was still plugging away at my little newsletter through the summer when Nick got in touch to suggest I start working with him as part of a Hot Pod expansion. Since then, writing about podcasting has become a big part of my day job, and I’m really happy with some of the more in depth pieces and interviews I’ve been able to do since September. Nick has built something solid that sits right at the heart of the podcast industry, and I was pleased if not surprised to find how quickly doors open upon mentioning those two magic words: “Hot Pod.”

However, it hasn’t escaped my notice that it was an American publication that allowed me to level up like this, and an independently created one at that. I know this is true for other British people in similar situations, too — working full time in podcasting outside the BBC only becomes viable if a US network or outlet picks them up.

So: in 2018, I learned that for someone in the UK to make independent podcasting into a full-time, decently paying gig they need to get really, really lucky (and probably make some contacts in America). I’d like to be able to say that I’m optimistic that this will change in the near future, but I’m not sure that I can be quite that confident. The BBC is still unsure about its responsibilities towards smaller podcasts and the broader market (cf. the almost total lack of independent shows in the BBC Sounds app beyond a privileged half dozen), and the media here is lightyears behind in the way it covers the industry. Beyond that there’s a really pressing need for transparency around compensation for the hundreds of freelancers the audio business relies on at the moment. I’d like to think that the market here will mature eventually, with a broader selection of advertisers spending more on a wider variety of shows, but that’s not going to happen overnight. What we have now feels precarious; in the next year at the very least I’d like there to be a bit more solidity.